USA
September 13, 2002 GMT
San Francisco

Usa2.jpg

The thrift store look--long fur- style coats, rags that were once scarves wrapped at waist and hair, pinned-in dreads, riotous patterns-all adds to the end of civilization feel. It’s like manufacturing has broken down and the denizens have to choose their attire from the bins. It’s a pose, a slumming posture, with no content. I love it just the same. Are they trying to provoke, do their small bit for the destruction of everything they know by clashing stripes and spots? Everyone can make a contribution in this land. Wear odd socks under your suit pants, carry a brown bag with a black belt, hell, rip off your jean pockets and let the bottoms drag on the floor. The Haight-Ashbury’s revolution is incremental. One misfit ting brick at a time will build the crookedest, most revolutionary goddamn wall of all time. Perhaps the end of civilization is a worthy aspiration?

I slough from couch to coffee waiting for my ship to come in.

Californiasnow.jpg
Surprise, surprise, it snows in California

Get invited to a weekend in the mountains with a bunch of guys on CT90s. I don't exactly fit in. The checked-shirt host asks me "are you carrying something?" I look quizzical. I remember the line from Grease where on their first date Rizzo asks this of Kinickie in the back seat of a car. Surely not. I realise he is referring to a different type of shooting. But the bunch of good ol boys tolerate me and my strange accent well enough.

Posted by at 04:02 PM GMT
October 13, 2002 GMT
California

A friend lends me his bike for a fortnight in sympathy and I spent a day riding round San Francisco, up and down: phew, a view of the bay over the brow, and then zoom, I am tipped front forwards, engine roaring and brake pads earning every penny. Sizzle sizzle goes the fluid. Fun fun fun.

Still struggling to adapt to the way of driving though. It is so laconic, streets are poorly signed, indicators are rare (they are the same colour as brake lights to aid disguise): big lazy overpowered cars with buckets of torque and a thirst for gasoline nosing around.

Time for a trip. No big Harley, no Goldwing, no vast set of cylinders, no leather waistcoat, no beard, no knuckle dusters, no gun, no deerskin gloves, no wedge of dollars, no tassels on my bags, no blond, just a battered old Honda and two luggage boxes to match, always the contrary one. Go east young man. Seems about right right.

It takes me all day to make Yosemite Valley, stopping frequently for knick-knacks and sandwiches.

The park is lovely. I enjoy the ride. There is a big vertical climbing rock centred in the valley like it was made for gazing groups at sunset. Unfortunately the KKH has a million of these, even more massive and dramatic. I like it here, but am glad I haven’t paid for it. I am caught in the trap of comparison, a darned foolish place to be, but I can’t get out right now, so I’ll just have to let it pass.

There are no cheap camp spots left by six, and it’s $64 for a tent, so I ride out with the last orange rays. Drivers repeatedly pull out on me on the freeway, and, remembering what sloppy drivers Americans are, I slow down. Four thousand revs in just fine. It gets colder and colder as I move west. People in automobiles are looking at me now: “Hey hon’ that guy is wearing shorts, on a motorcycle”. But I am happy. Happy in that way that I suspect only bikers know. There’s a joy to it that has never left me, ever since the first thrill of twisting and flying. It’s hard to explain. ‘I don’t want to be here right now, I want t be there’, so, I’ll put the key in, throw over my right leg and see what’s it’s like, quietly satisfied that, in getting over there, the experience will be intense and full to the brim. I have never driven a car, but I know that it is nothing like this.

People never learn their lessons. Wore only my shorts yesterday down Highway One, figuring on scorching hot California June day. The icy breeze off the Pacific burst that baloney bubble bigtime. The hypothermia detracts from the super road-a real beauty, probably the best coastal road I have ridden. It's why the Beach Boys exist. A glorious Bay ‘round every twisting corner. Cool as.

I turn left inland on Highway 58. Up in the hills a big cat runs across my front wheel as I enter a sharp righthander-a flash of brown gold, the size of a dog, like an adolescent tiger. Wowsy wow. Never seen a lynx before. Only know ‘em as big point scrabble options. Guess I scared it out of the bush. A tip for nature lovers: use hard engine breaking if you want to see the best.

I can’t bring myself to buy a $4 map, so I have to stop and ask people in gas stations, “Is this the way to Las Vegas?” It feels comic: today I am the little guy chasing the big American dream. Just one break is all I need man, just one goddamn break. Is that too much to ask? Luck be a Lady tonight…

It’s three hours to Vegas. My friend Suzanne gives me a number to call if I get put in jail. Strange. What does she think I am like?

Posted by at 04:11 PM GMT
November 13, 2002 GMT
Las Vegas

The strip is as garish and ridiculous as promised. Nothing is permanent. Faux Venice (no smells), faux Paris (no intellectuals) and faux New York (no Hilary) will have been concreted over in a decade. I wander about the slots and tables. It feels a library, the relaxed quiet concentration. There are some shows, but day-to-day Vegas is dull, unrelenting in its own way.

Sheena Easton is playing the MGM Grand soon. Hairbrush singing girl next door makes good. I remember her winning a BBC talent contest in the 1970s with My Baby Takes the Morning Train. That would make her fortysomething. It is an unhappy place. A guy shouts at me in traffic for lane splitting, another dives at the bike. Even the hooker gave me a hard time when I decline her offer of being tucked up, (almost what I had in mind) “come out of the closet man”: a mouthful of abuse for gratis.

I see an overlanding bike and chase it. Mike had shipped from Berlin. He give a new profundity to the word humourless. Jesus. Totally impervious to that jokey tone we use to show we want to have fun together. I tried repeatedly, he responded “yes” usually, and sometimes “no”, in a descending cadence that sounded like disapproval. I think he took my feeble witticisms as serious commentaries from what was clearly an extremely shallow individual. I gave up eventually, and directed him to a table of Harley riding Vietnam vets with a new phrase of English to practice “please fondle my bottom”. That was the last I saw of my new friend Michael.

Posted by at 04:13 PM GMT
December 13, 2002 GMT
Grand Canyon

Flagstaff AZ turns out to be a lovely little college town. It even has a centre. Hook up with a young woman in a Wee Willy Winky nightgown. It contrasts nicely with her dark brown skin. She talks about energies, the spiritual world and how what happens happens in an inexhaustible tone of profound understanding. I take her out for a ride to Sedona and the Airport Mesa. The rocks are stark and jagged surrounding the town, the centre of the universe according to someone famous I have ever heard of. The relaxed cornering descending into the valley was fun. She can’t believe it. First time on a bike is quite an experience. “It’s like a giant vibrator”. I gear down and she likes it even more. “This is the best day of my life”. I hope that exaggeration is one of her faults.

En route to the Grand Canyon the bike is so quiet and smooth sitting contentedly at 4,000 revs. I am so happy to be alone on a 60mph road through the pines.

Up out of my tent at first light to take my shots, enjoying the low sun on my head as the crisp cold wind blows around the bluff. I have the viewpoint to myself for two hours, with only condors for company, hunting their first repast. “That’s one big-ass hole dude”, says the first tourist to arrive. It is great seeing people’s reaction. It’s often an expletive. The women trickle in with gosh and golly and deep breathes and clutching the railing. It’s like they have taken a blow.

The word aesthetic has a root that refers to the body, despite how it is used now to suggest something wholly intellectual. Western culture can’t deal with the intimate relation of body and mind that the Greeks grasped. We say visceral when we want to describe something that hits us physically, but there is no reason why the two parts of ourselves can’t go together. Isn’t that why a long ride on a motorcycle is so good? After a while of concentrating so hard, you forget you’re thinking; the gulf is bridged and you feel truly relaxed, mind and body talking to one another without the philosophical interpreter. Nike tries to capture the feeling in their advertising slogan, but they omit all the hard preparatory thinking work that it takes to just do it. I sit and look over the miles of ridges and gulfs, having an aesthetic experience all my own, but shared with the others.

The canyon is the first thing in America that deserves the overused adjective awesome.

The drive around Monument Valley is brilliant. Even the thick powdery sand can’t break the atmosphere. I am hot, tired, worried about dropping it, but blown away by the weirdness of being surrounded by dozens of giant red tors, each as old as the planet. Two fantastic geological experiences in one day.

In the Navaho nation the people sell trinkets and trumpet their patriotism. “We support our troops in Iraq” posters are everywhere. One shop on the highway advertises itself in ten foot letters “Friendly Indians”. It reminds me of General Philip Sheridan’s opinion on what makes a good Indian. This subservience is pretty close to death isn’t it?

Posted by at 04:17 PM GMT
January 13, 2003 GMT
Utah

In Mount Carmel Junction, UT the waitresses look at me with disgust. I only want some eggs love. What is it? Maybe it’s my nose. It is bleeding a lot now. It can’t take all this high-speed dust/heat/cold that I treat it to constantly. No way I’m putting down that visor though. I want to feel this air. And my hair is a bit wild. Mind you, the guy at the motel last night was the same: contempt bordering on hostility. It’s like they are only serving me because their dog is being held hostage. It is so untypical of the country. Usually people are hospitable in a thousand small ways. This whole town is built around a junction. That’s it. The place exists only to serve strangers--it’s a non-destination, non-return eatery. Why should they care? The women are 20, with children to worry about, and a lifetime to putting eggs in front of strangers to look forwards to. I wouldn’t smile either.

I underestimate distances again. I’m pushing that 85mph average again. It’s okay flying past the cars, but there is a nagging doubt in my mind. Isn’t there a reason why I shouldn’t do this? Maybe something to do with safety? I am slowing slightly toward a town when I see the flashing red lights in my mirror. For some reason I am not that worried, although I know 85 is seriously amiss.

Once he hears the accent Warren is understandingess itself. He gives me a concerned homily complete with slaps on the arm about the animals on the road that can do me harm. He’s an encyclopaedia of local fauna. As he drifts towards a breakdown by genus, species and sub-species his eye catches my name on my licence, “So you’re a doctor hey”?

“Yes. An academic one though, not a medical one”

“Still. It’s an achievement. There’re people out there who need you”; something that had never occurred to me, and I am not sure is true, but I nod like an eager puppy at feeding time, aware that this avuncular tone spells l.e.t.o.f.f. in a large gentle font. He spends five minutes in his black and white car processing the details. He’d clocked 77mph, so no jail time for me. Instead he gives me a slip that includes the delightful phrase “this is not a court summons, just a friendly contact from the Utah police about your driving”. Wonderful: a friendly contact from the state trooper. I don’t ask him what do you call a man with a rabbit on his head. Instead I tell him that I will be a good boy, and I mean it.

I drive all evening to reach Park City, arriving at half eleven. Mike collects me from the gas station. I must look a sorry sight, wet (did I mention a storm started as I drove along the valley), cold and slightly manic after the long day in the saddle. He is easy to be with, which deepens my impression of Utah to be a relaxed friendly state that bears no one a grudge. I forgive its Christianity for a while and take a rest day in his living room, reading bike mags and drinking tea.
“I’ve never seen it rain like this here before Simon”. In Quetta, Pakistan I brought rain for the first time in five years. In New South Wales I broke a two-year drought and in Goa the monsoon came two weeks early in time for my arrival. Believe me, it is no surprise. I should hire myself out to the UN. ‘Need some water buddy, like several hundred thousand tons? I’m yer man. Fresh and free. Call me anytime.’

Posted by at 04:21 PM GMT
February 13, 2003 GMT
Nevada

Next day, the storm follows me for six hours, lightning cracking overhead all the way into Nevada as I search for the loneliest road in the USA. I find it full of Harleys. The riders are amiable enough. In their quest for personal freedom and individuality they all dress the same. It's like meeting the Village People.

Is this fashion for outmoded big twins all about the US being confident in itself-the men more secure in their anxieties-or less secure, taking on these outrageously impractical signs of male identity to prove their power to themselves because they feel it slipping away everywhere else? Essay by next week please. (Nice chaps by the way lads. Very Castro.) They all squint at the Transalp, and seem to be wondering if it is a motorcycle at all. What the fuck does that say about the rider? Where’s your male identity buddy? I, uhm, left it at home today, uhm, the dog ate it, but here’s a note of explanation from my mum. It's really very practical, honest.

I overnight in Nevada Hotel, Ely, which is as about unlike its Cambridgeshire cathedral town namesake as one could imagine. In Utah you can’t get a drink in the street. Over the state line they give beer away with your gambling chips. The tourist brochure includes money off coupons for the local brothels. It’s not quite two for the price of one, but you get the picture. I stay up late drinking good whisky, talking to anyone who’ll listen. The waitress has five kids. She is 25. The guy next to me would like to buy a Harley yeah, and yes I AM FROM ENGLAND.

Highway 6/50 continues westwards in its straightish desolate way for half a day. There’re no towns, no pollution. The air is clear. You can see right across the salt flats to the distant sierras. I sit back on the seat, right hand on the throttle, the other leaning behind my back on the big rear-seat bag. This is a nice place to muse. No bends to spoil the reverie. I don’t have any great thoughts, but the space is healthy and restful. My baby-size V-twin hums along nicely. Small is beautiful. And today, big is beautiful too.

Reno: five dollars back for free when you cash your paycheque says the tannoy every three minutes. Mesmerizing blinking slot inhumanity all around. Machines obscure exits and aisles lead nowhere. The place is designed to disorientate, so you’ll wander around the tables endlessly, forgetting your intentions and decide upon a life of giving away your money. Seems to work okay. I wonder have they considered bringing the toilets to the tables? I drink the subsidized margarita with my back to the gamblers who are graciously paying for it. I tell myself I need more salt for the heat. It is two for the price of one, and the one isn’t that expensive to start with. I am getting in that salt in bigtime. This is as close as the town gets to a health drink. An hour of intensive treatment passes and I am getting very very healthy, dizzily so.

Stagger to the eatery. You need some packing on that Simon-mate. In the restaurant the waiters’ trousers don’t fit. They dangle oversized and ugly, roughly hauled in at the waist. There is no aplomb here. Instead of redecorating, they have just dimmed the lights. Consecutive years of this technique have produced a near dark environment. Perfect for the food too. I turn on my bat radar and crawl into a booth. For appearances sake I sit rather than hang upside down. “Steak and eggs for four dollars please” and “no, water’s just fine”. There’s a small thrill in not giving too much money to the mafia/Mormon gambling alliance, but it is a very small one. I guess they will make it without me.

Take a big long lie-in on white sheets. A joy. Dawdle over more steak and eggs, this time forgoing the health drink. It is hot across the California valley. I am on the Bay Bridge at eight. The sun sets all orange-pink. The skyscrapers are half-lit and majestic; Alcatraz a black silhouette lump of dough on a solid silver lake; the rich people’s houses on the hills small beacons of reflected light. The city welcomes me, and I feel good.

Posted by at 04:31 PM GMT
March 13, 2003 GMT
Across the states.

I spend two days trying to get my bike out of the port. After all the paperwork, all the walking miles across the port in the sun back and forth between customs and freighters, all the fruitless negotiation to waive the $90 crate opening charge, all the pointless attempts to get the crate put in the shade for us to work on the bikes, the hours of sweating in the sun reassembling the machines, the appeasing of interests in the yard to give us peace to work in, the delicate stacking of components on my rack into a fine sculpture of metal and angles, after all this, I pull out my key ring to start the machine and realize I have the wrong set. There are no words, there are no words…

Me and the Transalp go across the states in ten days, via Chicago and Yellowstone. It occurs to me that this is the Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance journey in reverse. New York is as great as ever (so good they named it twice). I then head south via the overrated New Orleans to Dallas (where I don’t get shot) and then out.

Goodbye. Out through Texas, the huge belly of the beast: you were kind, prosaic and troubled. Biggest market on the planet, more violence to offer than any empire in the whole of history, but you still don’t feed and clothe your population. One does wonder. No more dollar-horror max-it meals of fat and fries: fucked by forty, dead by fifty, still with ten pounds of undigested red meat in your guts when they shovel dirt on the timber. Another road for me.

There's a lot more to say. Some other time.

Posted by at 04:36 PM GMT
 



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